“Being a refugee is not an identity. It’s a circumstance, it’s a situation you live through.” Wise words, spoken in a recent interview by filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, whose absorbing animated documentary Flee (}}}) aptly illustrates his point, tracing the refugee journey of gay Afghan scholar Amin Nawabi.
Amin, friends with Rasmussen since the two met as classmates in the ’90s, had long kept hidden the full, harrowing true story of how he escaped from war-torn Kabul across Europe to Denmark. As Rasmussen explains in voiceover, he had always been curious about how this Afghan teenager simply one day appeared at their small-town Danish high school. Rasmussen’s gentle pursuit of the whole truth frames Amin’s dramatic retelling of his and his family’s daring flight from civil war, just one remarkable refugee story among millions around the world.
Rendered in sparse yet vivid 2D animation, Amin and Rasmussen chat over wine, or with Amin kicked back on a couch, therapy-style, recounting happy days of his childhood, or the terror of being packed inside a shipping crate with scores of other desperate, frightened refugees. Throughout, the animation style and palette vary to evoke different moods — the pain of loss, the joy of flying a bright yellow kite on a sunny day, Amin’s shame and embarrassment at being viewed as a refugee.
Although Flee can tend towards describing rather than depicting Amin’s emotional state, animation is, of course, infinitely flexible as a means of recreating scenes from his memories. Visualizing his present-tense narration, the film lucidly depicts how his family’s middle-class comfort is sorely disrupted first by the Mujahideen, who persecuted then abducted his father, and then by the Taliban, who violently usurped power after the U.S.S.R. withdrew their invading forces.
Interspersing live-action newsreel footage with its animated scenes, Flee grounds its impressionistic recollections with cold, hard images of brutal history. Forced to flee the country, Amin’s family must place their lives in the hands of human traffickers in order to reach safe haven. “A bunch of psychopaths,” he calls the smugglers, but what better choice is there for these asylum seekers?
The family’s epic, perilous journey, underscored by composer Uno Helmersson’s melancholic strings, is marked by moral dilemmas and grueling sacrifices made in the name of love and freedom. Among other things, Amin sacrifices his truth along the way, as he’s instructed to concoct a false cover story to facilitate his safe passage to Europe.
Part interview, part therapy session, the film serves as a means for Amin to recover his real story, and come to terms with it as he contemplates moving forward in marriage with his Danish fiancé Kasper. Like nearly everyone else in Amin’s life, Kasper knows only bits and pieces of his past. Can Amin open himself up to his partner and commit to their life together?
Unfortunately, the film’s attempts to contrast the loving couple hunting for a house in the countryside with the Nawabi family’s desperate search for safety feel forced. In the midst of a tense moment on the refugee trail, the movie will digress to the house-hunting plotline, awkwardly interrupting its own momentum.
Rasmussen might intend for Kasper to personify Amin’s definition of home — “home means someplace safe, not someplace temporary” — but the film doesn’t offer much compelling characterization of the couple’s relationship. For that matter, the friendship between Amin and filmmaker Rasmussen seems far more intriguing, and clearly is of more immediate interest to the filmmaker, too.
Flee is now playing at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com.
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